Ghosts & Scholars
M.R. James

Issue 1 (March 2002)

The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter is published approximately three times a year at irregular intervals. A hard copy version is available to buy - click here for further information. Contributions are welcome - click here for Guidelines. Issue 1 in hard copy also contains selected news from the "Jamesian News" web page, and an Index to Ghosts & Scholars 26-33.

Editor: Rosemary Pardoe (e-mail); Assistant Editors: David Rowlands and Steve Duffy.

Copyright © 2002 Rosemary Pardoe. All rights retained by the contributors. All unassigned material by Rosemary Pardoe. Not to be reproduced without the permission of the authors/artist.


"Editorial" by Rosemary Pardoe (with David Rowlands and Steve Duffy)

"Notes on the Structure and Ubiquity of Mr Humphreys' Maze" by Carl Jay Buchanan

"Jamesian Notes & Queries":

"The Man in King William Street" by Rosemary Pardoe

"Partial Eclipse of the Provost" by David Longhorn

"Caroline de Litchfield" by Donald Tumasonis

"Queries" ("A Warning to the Curious", "Oh, Whistle", The Five Jars, and Herbert James)

"Reviews" (The Legacy of M.R. James and "From Haunted Rose Gardens to Lurking Wendigos...")

Artwork: Alan Hunter ("An Evening's Entertainment")


Welcome to the first issue of the G&S Newsletter, the successor to Ghosts & Scholars magazine. I don't expect every issue to be as large as this one, especially if there is important news which needs to go out quickly. But if you get the contributions flowing in, I might have to plan an expansion.

The two formats of the Newsletter - the hard copy booklet version and the web site version - are not quite identical. The web site news section is kept completely up to date, with new items every few days; and also in future the web version may have additional, relevant artwork when it is of a type (colour, for instance) which would not reproduce well in the hard copy format. In all other ways, however, those without access to the Net will not lose out.

The Newsletter's subject matter is confined to M.R. James and his circle of ghost story writing friends and associates. Within that area I'm looking for all kinds of non-fiction contributions: full-length, scholarly articles; shorter pieces, questions and answers for "Jamesian Notes & Queries"; reviews; comments for the lettercolumn; and a certain amount of artwork. I'll be happy to discuss specific ideas with you. Do you have any additions to the annotations in Ash-Tree Press's A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings of M.R. James? Do you have a controversial theory you want to put forward for discussion? (Conspiracy theories especially welcome! Did MRJ know more than he was letting on about certain things?) Don't be intimidated if you don't think you can express yourself well enough: the idea's the thing. I can lick your prose into shape (with your approval), if necessary.

In Newsletter #1, the major article is Carl Buchanan's analysis of "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance"; an analysis in which the monomyth plays a part. MRJ, whose opinion of the science of comparative mythology couldn't have been clearer ("I have often viewed with very grave suspicion the way in which comparative mythologists treat their evidence", etc.), would probably be horrified at this. He was scathing about both Jane Harrison and James Frazer (it's fortunate that Joseph Campbell came too late on the scene to be similarly ripped apart!).* Yet I think Carl makes a very good case for MRJ's unconscious adherence to aspects of the theme of the mythic hero's journey, possibly in more than one of his tales. "Mr Humphreys" is far and away the most obvious example, and in the earlier version of the story - the draft published under the title "John Humphreys" - the journey, though different, is equally clearly delineated. But could other MRJ tales be seen in these terms? "A Warning to the Curious", "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" and "Count Magnus" are among possible candidates, but if so, it's significant that, unlike Mr Humphreys (and, seemingly, John Humphreys), Messrs Paxton, Somerton and Wraxall were all tried and found wanting: as questing heroes they were failures. Another topic for discussion in future issues, I hope. (And I have an even more controversial piece lined up as the major article in issue two!)

But enough of my introduction. Get reading and get participating! As I said in the final issue of G&S last year, I'd really like the Newsletter to be a general forum on the supernatural fiction (and related subjects) of MRJ and his friends, but it can't be that unless you join in. All published contributions (with the exception of short lettercolumn inclusions) will entitle their authors/artists to complimentary copies of the issues in which their work appears, and appropriate subscription extensions.

After receiving G&S 33 last year, John Gordon sent me a letter with an inspiring description of the magazine's run: "a substantial thing, a real achievement, a compendium of branching paths, fascinating trails, and some still unanswered questions". Let's see if the Newsletter can answer some of those unanswered questions!

Rosemary Pardoe, March 2002

* MRJ, "Some Remarks on 'The Head of John the Baptist'", The Classical Review 31, February 1917, pp.1-4 (the quote is on p.4); Shelley Arlen, "Jane Ellen Harrison: M.R. James's Nemesis", Ghosts & Scholars 31, pp.38-42; and the sarcastic remark about The Golden Bough in "Casting the Runes" (on which, see Michael Cox's note on pp.160-161 of A Pleasing Terror).


I asked my two assistant editors to get the ball rolling with some ideas on what they'd like to see in future Newsletters. David Rowlands sent in his thoughts first:

"I'm rather embarrassed to say that - having considered it for some time past - I can't really improve on what you've already postulated (e.g. at the end of G&S 33). Excluding fiction, and establishing the Newsletter as a forum for discussion of all aspects of MRJ and friends, seems exactly right to me. I think you might need to identify some topics and call upon a particular individual to provide notes/draft or fact-sheet... but then you do this anyway. It should be possible to incite the respondents and subscribers to bombard the media (chiefly TV) for some new James programmes - or even repeats. [Would we have more clout for this sort of thing if the Newsletter became The M.R. James Society? It's a thought, and it's undeniable that I do have a history of founding or co-founding societies, but I thought I'd managed to kick the habit! Ed.] Possibly an Annual could be produced that summarises, or reprints, information gleaned during the year (in the 'Forum') and records it for future reference... or if good articles/fact-sheets are forthcoming, they could be presented as a Symposium or collection of essays. But you will have thought of all these things anyway..."


And from Steve Duffy, his own mini-editorial:

"So - here we all are, three months into the post-Ghosts & Scholars era... and how are you managing so far, folks? Any withdrawal symptoms? Hopefully, this Newsletter should help keep them at bay, preserving as it will all the very best features (leaving aside the fiction, about which the debate will, I fear, continue for many months yet to come) of the old G&S. As your Editor, Rosemary Pardoe, has intimated, it'll be flexible in both size and frequency: remember, you can help things along considerably in both respects, by keeping us well supplied with news and opinions - particularly the latter. Speaking personally - i.e. outside the admirably comprehensive party line laid down by the Editor - I'd like to think this flexibility might possibly extend in some ways to the content of the Newsletter, as we look to define, describe and debate all that we mean by that deceptively simple adjective, Jamesian. While it's obvious that anything going under the name of The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter will by definition concentrate on Monty and the James Gang, I've accepted Ro's most welcome invitation to carry on as assistant editor at least partly in the hopes of pushing the corners of the envelope a little, in terms of editorial inclusivity! Well, okay, it was partly that, and partly the money..."

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Notes on the
Structure and Ubiquity
of Mr Humphreys' Maze

by Carl Jay Buchanan

At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.
(T.S. Eliot's "Ash-Wednesday")

Most of the floor was occupied by a pile of thick circular blocks of stone, each of which had a single letter deeply cut on its slightly convex upper surface. "What is the meaning of these?" Humphreys inquired.
"Meaning? Well, all things we're told have their purpose Mr Humphreys, and I suppose these blocks have had theirs as well as another."
("Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance")


We may understand Mr Wilson's secret now, thanks to Rosemary Pardoe and Jane Nicholls,[1] but those of us who find this story particularly compelling have yet to fully explain why. For what reasons is the tale so effective?

We might expect a story about a maze to be structured like a maze: is it?

Let's work our way through it sequentially. The protagonist is coming for the first time to an unfamiliar home which nevertheless is his own, and must be (re)discovered, for it is his ancestral abode, we might say. (What is familiar and yet new is the definition of the uncanny, according to Freud.) Now there is a certain confusion in the initial talks he has with the caretakers of his new estate, and he is a little lost even from the beginning of his arrival; words and speeches lead nowhere, and are even slightly, very subtly ominous:

"I was just saying to Mr Humphreys, my dear," said Mr Cooper, "that I hope and trust that his residence among us here in Wilsthorpe will be marked as a red-letter day."
"Yes, indeed, I'm sure," said Mrs Cooper heartily, "and many, many of them."
Miss Cooper murmured words to the same effect, and Humphreys attempted a pleasantry about painting the whole calendar red, which, though greeted with shrill laughter, was evidently not fully understood. At this point they proceeded to luncheon.

The ironic hint that readers may anticipate some blood-letting is obvious enough, I think. Shortly, Mr Humphreys is compelled to "run the gauntlet", which again is in part symbolic of difficulties that lie ahead for him, although the gauntlet here is made up of the ranks of servants; and Mr Humphreys' natural diffidence, magnified by his sudden new station in life, accounts for much of his unease.

When Miss Cooper, who seems sprightly enough, remarks that she and Miss Foster have always had a joke between them "as to which of us should be the first to get into the maze", the reader is again alerted, and since mazes are generally known to represent difficulties, or life's roads in general, a gentle smile at the young ladies' bets as to who shall first emerge into the world fully may appear on the reader's lips. In a small way, this anticipates and parallels Mr Humphreys' own coming initiation and growth through solving a maze.

Mr Cooper, the gardener, is used to set a good deal of the scene for us, and one might remark on the mazal quality of his language, which is confused and gives us some of the funniest moments in James's corpus, in the midst of which speeches the paradox "[he was] sad that he could not be sorry" again inserts a note of the puzzling. I may as well say here that those who find this story tedious have not, I think, read it carefully enough. James's style is as deliberate as the young Hemingway's, and worthy of careful and minute study.

It was common in the days the story bespeaks to copy an authentic temple in one's grounds, but the "Sibyl's Temple at Tivoli", only "a good deal smaller", has been chosen by the author to warn the careful reader to expect prophesy, specifically the kind of forewarning that is not helpful until the danger cannot be averted. ("A great army will be destroyed", the oracle told the Persian general, who common-sensically interpreted that to mean the Greek army, not his own.) Such careful touches abound in the story, and I will not attempt to be exhaustive in recording them here. ("Would it interest you perhaps to take a turn there?", "...about it all was a pleasant flavour of the grand tour", and so on. Italics mine for these labyrinth-like double entendres one may spy sprinkled through the tale.)

And now one may re-read the passage quoted at my essay's heading, for it stands out as a singular instance of language as a puzzle, a concrete(!) puzzle to be deciphered.

Mr Humphreys pushes open the lock to the gate of the maze without needing a key, for this maze is destined for him; it is his puzzle to solve, left to him as his heritage. "Ah, there at last was the centre, easily gained." Alone, he finds it easy to traverse the maze, for some genius in it leads him through it, doubtless his uncle's grandfather's spirit, or a less reducible blood- heritage-based helper. Cooper's naïve remark about "angels fearing to tread" insinuates that Humphreys is a fool for penetrating into the heart of the mystery and operates as firm dramatic irony at this point of the narration: as Humphreys sees through Cooper, so does the reader see through Humphreys, and thus we seem to stand shoulder to shoulder with the teller and share both his gentle ridicule of the gardener and his authorial apprehension for the hero.

Getting to the center of the physical maze is easy, but that turns out to be only the first step. During successive laps, false starts and blind alleys must be arduously explored before arriving at the true center, the secret of his ancestor's life which hides his own non-material and more important inheritance.

As Mr Humphreys, joined by his gardener, walks back towards the house, Cooper's maladroitness with the language again is especially apt: "When I first entered into my duties here some years back that maze was word for word [italics mine] in the condition you see it now...". The uncle's grandfather, despised by H.'s uncle, had the maze laid out, we are told.

The passage Mr H. reads in the library may prepare him mentally for what is to come, or one might interpret this story as we do so many by Poe, and say all that follows is delivered by a man in a state of mental abnormalcy, that is, hallucination.

The next day, as Mr Humphreys attempts to lead Mrs and young Miss Cooper through the maze, he cannot, of course, in their company find the center at all. With difficulty, a workman finds his way to the group, and Clutterham's attempts to sort out the matter avail not at all. It is a false start. Chagrined, Mr Humphreys returns for another effort that evening; he easily makes his way clear through, "finding it without a single false step".

On the third day of his residence, Mr Humphreys "went to the middle of the maze (again without any hesitation) and set out his materials. He was however delayed in making a start". Although hitherto "convinced" that the central object was a celestial globe, a device for watching the movements of the stars, he now "found that it did not answer to his recollection of such things". (Again, one might argue that Mr Humphreys' mental state makes the difference in his perception of this and other objects.) He can make out the familiar constellation Draco, but it seems to him that:

...a good part of the upper hemisphere was covered by the outspread wings of a large figure whose head was concealed by a ring at the pole or summit of the whole. Around the place of the head the words princeps tenebrarum [prince of darkness] could be deciphered.

The remainder of the globe is similarly transformed: the form of Hercules is thereon named Cain; and in short it seems to be a sort of Heavens of Evil, perverting the normal celestial design as the Black Mass perverts the Eucharist.

Mr Humphreys then emulates Theseus, about whom he has read the previous night, and procures a roll of twine to mark the maze "from the entrance to the centre". Towards tea-time, he is joined by Cooper, and the two find the globe is hot to the one's touch, and cold to the other's. Mr Cooper says, "I dare say you're a chilly subject, Mr Humphreys: I'm not: and there's where the distinction lies". We suspect the fact that the orb of evil is too hot for Cooper to easily touch is another indication that the maze and what lies within it are for the Humphreys bloodline only.

The night is rainy, the plan made in the maze has been forgotten and is therefore ruined, and the work has to be done over again. One has the sensation of running in place like Alice, and yet a journey is being accomplished, bit by bit. Mr Humphreys is being initiated into horror, and the reader is inexorably drawn along with him, walking the maze of words that describe, repeatedly, Humphreys walking the maze.

A telegram from London prevents the plan from being re-drawn that day, so another attempt to give the maze's secret to outsiders is foiled. This might be mere coincidence, but that same evening back in the house, Mr Humphreys sees "a small Irish yew, thin and black, which stood out like an outpost of the shrubbery through which the maze was approached". Perhaps his mind is playing tricks on him, or perhaps an evil spirit is standing at the entrance like a sentinel. At this point, the reader cannot say for certain; thus James maintains the careful balance of the rational-versus-supernatural. Will it ever be resolved in this tale?

On the fourth day, three things occur. A letter is received from a Lady Wardrop asking to include a plan of the Wilsthorpe maze in her forthcoming Book of Mazes. The plan of the maze is completed, and in the evening, Mr Humphreys looks again at the Irish yew. He decides that it is not so obtrusive to the landscape as he had thought the night before; this is another instance in which a step is taken in one direction, and then withdrawn. "What he would do away with, however, was a clump of dark growth which had usurped a place against the house wall and was threatening to obscure one of the lower range of windows... [He] fancied it dark and unhealthy, little as he could see of it". Either Mr Humphreys' unconscious is warning him of approaching evil, or something malevolent really is getting nearer.

On the fifth day, which we are told is a Friday, Lady Wardrop arrives at Wilsthorpe and succeeds in walking to the center of the maze along with Mr Humphreys, by which we may infer that the guardian of the maze is now loose in the grounds next to the house, and is no longer in a position to deny access. The experience of the maze awakens in Lady Wardrop some forebodings, and she cannot see the "bush-thing under the library window" clearly (so we may conclude, if we're of a mind to, that it exists only to the hero). But she does offer the bit of arcane knowledge that such stones as stood before the temple were often numbered on the bottom, which turns out to be the case.

Now, perhaps Mr Humphreys has a guilty conscience and identifies with the man in the old sermon who got a treasure (= Humphreys' rich legacy) and must therefore accept an accompanying codicil, so to speak. Perhaps this is only an irrational unconscious desire to be punished when one receives a sudden windfall. The remaining episodes of the story leave us in doubt, for the exciting climactic scene in the library, when Mr Humphreys attempts to copy the plan of the maze for Lady Wardrop, is one that ends in a "concussion of the brain" and may have originated in a psychological disturbance. The episode, be it illusory or real, is chilling, and may, in either of two senses, have its roots in the black thing with outspread wings Mr Humphreys had previously seen on the un-celestial globe: the thing may actually be coming for him with outstretched arms; or he may be having a realistic dream inspired by what he has seen, while a wasp, perhaps, circumambulates the dozer.

The horrific incident is followed in the narrative by more dark humor. In his delirium, Mr Humphreys says, "I wish you would open the ball in the maze", to which the reply is comical in its misunderstanding. When the globe is opened, it goes all to pieces, and is found to be "half full of stuff like ashes", from which Cooper and Mr Humphreys himself obviously draw a dark conclusion, that "it's a case of cremation".

Notwithstanding the excellent analysis of Pardoe and Nicholls concerning the inscription found on the blocks, once properly arranged ("PENETRANS AD INTERIORA MORTIS"), the reader may speculate that the interior to which it is death to penetrate is a psychic abyss, and not simply a thing of overgrown hedges. It seems to me that both meanings, the realistic and the supernatural, work well and parallel each other closely throughout this excellent tale. Sometimes a quotation, taken out of context, is meant to lead us to that context and apply the context in a new situation, different from its original application. At other times, a quotation derived out of its context leads us away from its original, and in this case words of excellent sonority, a memorable phrasing, may exist completely separately from the original, or they may ironically comment on it. Be that as it may, I tend to agree with Pardoe and Nicholls that this quotation's source points us towards sex, perhaps "consorting with prostitutes", as the guilty secret of James Wilson, the ancestor, and I add that this is perhaps a failing of Mr Humphreys as well; a sin (or human failing?) he has inherited with so much else.

We have noted the several false turnings, the different courses open to Mr Humphreys as he tries to decide what to do with his maze, his new estate, and his life. The piecing together of the inscription stones is a proper advance, a good stretch of the maze completed and conquered. The main misjudgments he makes occur as he tries to walk the maze in company and: (1) to copy the plan for others; and (2) to try copying it yet again in his library. It belongs to him, and him only.

The maze is the most important symbol in the story, and it has several layers of meaning. It is a remnant of the vanishing past of England, when great estates could indulge in ornamental garden play; it is a part of Humphreys' individual inheritance, both materially and psychologically; and as Pardoe and Nicholls have explained, it (the maze, the inheritance) centers upon the secret sin of his forebear. We may ask what, beyond this, mazes represent. The answer is subtle, complex, and ancient.

Mr Humphreys easily solved the maze in a physical sense several times. The true labyrinth of the story is more importantly his journey to a psychic center where he confronts, as did Theseus (twice mentioned), a monster, which we may interpret to be his dead ancestor or something dark in himself, if only a concretization of some threatening experiences or (possibly undeserved) guilts. Thus the story itself is somewhat of a maze centered about a maze which has its own center.

Joseph Campbell noted that the maze represents one's journey through life. This puzzle exists only for oneself; the maze plan is, in fact, unique for each of us, which fact may foil those materialists who would like to collect all the plans of all the mazes in England, microcosm of the world of M.R. James and Mr Humphreys. The notion of getting lost to find oneself is mentioned by Christ and remembered by Robert Frost in a major poem about life as a labyrinth, "Directive", and in several of T.S. Eliot's works.

To pull down a maze is to reject the notion of life as something to be worked at, and perhaps implies a desire to go with the flow, to see life as a river that carries the passive soul down its windings, unwilled. Seated at his desk, at the true center of this tale, Mr Humphreys gets to the bottom of something. An error may destroy his life; the happenstance of a false turn may impede him again, but he takes the risk, and he does not fail, although the danger has been great, for to reach the center is to be re-born.

And to be born to a new life, as we know from Campbell citing the great spiritual masters, one must first "die".

The Underlying Psychological Drama

To examine the relationship between uncle and nephew from a psychological aspect, I would contrast the physical maze with the spiritual (existential?) one. The "solving" of the latter, which is the working out of the plot of the story, frees Mr H. from the burden of his inheritance, since it is an evil one, and since we must all, in a sense, burst free from the confines of parental figures.

I don't want to wax overly Freudian about this, but the eternal generational disputes do seem to keep going on, as we observe in a standard text of psychological criticism by Frederick Crews in which he explicates a number of the most well-known tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne according to Freudian ideas.[2] Of father-figures and sons, Freud had much to tell us that will likely never be invalidated, although we may amplify and extend his discoveries. The antipathy between fathers and sons has been recorded since the beginning of writing, as is the love-hate relationship between siblings, and other common features of the family drama. Yeats in his very short play, Purgatory, condensed the whole male matter into two characters: a man who years ago killed his own father, now kills his son - with the very same knife. Neither Freud nor anyone else I know of would say "that knife is a penis", but clearly it symbolizes something fundamental and masculine forcing its way through three generations of a family; it's not just a knife, any more than Mr Humphreys' maze is just a clumping of hedges of no symbolic significance.

More Freudiana: of course one expects to find maternal and female symbols in stories so lacking in active females. This is not to say that asserting "the maze is his mother", for instance, has any useful meaning at all. The hairy things, the woven grasses, and other symbolic horrors in James have no more or less significance in his stories than elsewhere in literature and in life. It does seem to amplify the richness of "Mr Humphreys" to observe that an elderly, though sprightly, female figure solves the riddle of the stones, like a mother figure aiding the Hero; and a young and eligible female, who is a relative of the mother figure, becomes married to the Hero: this is all very much as we would expect, following those who have studied the patterns of the Monomyth.

Other Maze Fictions

In "In the Walls of Eryx" by H.P. Lovecraft, the maze, an invisible one for a change, has its exit directly behind the pursuer, as is revealed in the last sentence of this tale of pure science fiction. The concept is an exquisite one, implying the ubiquity of mazes in our lives and their usually hidden nature. Not getting out of Lovecraft's maze means death for the protagonist, just as not being granted admittance through the gate of the Law means death for the protagonist in a parable by Kafka which Borges, the maze-master, loved. Both tales minimize actual physical movement, yet create a sense of dire urgency, just as Mr Humphreys' physical ambulation of the maze solves nothing for him. I mention these other first-rate maze stories to show what good company M.R. James is in, and a perusal of the three tales, plus certain riddles expounded by the labyrinth's master, J.L. Borges, will find "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance" very much up to the mark of these illustrious artists.

The book which contained the Parable of the maze may have disappeared, but there are plenty of others to read and learn from, if we are able. As Mr Cooper opines:

...humanly speaking, all these many solemn events have a meaning for us, if our limited intelligence permitted of our disintegrating it.

To break the whole into its component parts might well be called "dis-integration" as well as "de-construction" or the usual "analysis". But the author, speaking behind Mr Cooper as Shakespeare speaks most clearly through his oblique Fools, wants us to look at his words most carefully, and see the celestial globe "disintegrate" as well.

"James Wilson's Secret", Ghosts and Scholars 24, pp.45-48 (and in A Pleasing Terror, pp.596-600).
[2] Crews' apology for his seminal text now (since the 1966 edition) appears as an afterword. This partial repudiation of his important and insightful work is, one assumes, written so that he can keep his job: i.e. it is a surrender to "political correctness" in the United States, an umbrella movement which assumes that Freud was a jerk, there is no such thing as a text, etc., ad nauseam.

Primary Works Consulted
James, M.R., "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance".
Crews, Frederick, The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes (University of California Press, 1989).
Lovecraft, H.P., "In the Walls of Eryx", in Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (Arkham House, 1986).

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Jamesian Notes & Queries

Notes, queries, theories and short articles concerning M.R. James and his circle of ghost story writing friends and associates are welcome for this section. Please keep them to under 1500 words if possible.


The Man in King William Street

by Rosemary Pardoe

There is an intriguing reference in Eton & King's (1926, pp.196-197) to one of M.R. James's early contacts with the strange tomes that he continued to enjoy throughout his life:

But when I was able, on my way back to Eton [in the 1870s], to buy...the four classical volumes of John Albert Fabricius... (from the friendly bookseller John Mozley Stark of King William Street, Strand), life appeared to have little more to offer. I bless in parenthesis the memory of Mr Stark... Mr. Stewart, too, whose shop was next door, and who was a specialist in occult literature, showed me Barrett's Magus and other classics of wizardry which made a deep impression. [my italics]

Francis Barrett's The Magus or Celestial Intelligencer, described in its subtitle as "A Complete System of Occult Philosophy", was first published in 1801, and has since been reprinted many times. It has sections on Natural Magic, Alchemy, Talismanic Magic, "Cabalistical" and Ceremonial Magic , etc., and mini-biographies of important figures such as Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon and John Dee. Barrett gathered and translated his information from several sources, often quoting verbatim, as in, for instance, his listing "of the order of Evil Spirits", which he took from Henry Cornelius Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy (including an alternative identification for the "Prince of the Power of the Air" - cf. "Count Magnus" - a subject to which I hope to return eventually). I have yet to find any evidence that MRJ made use of The Magus specifically when writing his stories - in fact, several of his characters (notably in "The Fenstanton Witch" and "The Experiment") might have succeeded rather better if they'd had some of the appropriate conjurations in the "Ceremonial Magic" section to hand! Nevertheless, The Magus is an absorbingly wide-ranging compendium on the Western magical tradition, and it is easy to understand its appeal to an enquiring mind of an antiquarian and esoteric bent like MRJ's.

So the Eton & King's reference to "Barrett's Magus" poses no mystery, but the same cannot be said of the person who first introduced MRJ to the book. Who was "Mr Stewart" of King William Street? A little more can be gathered about him from MRJ's July 1877 letter, which R.W. Pfaff quotes in Montague Rhodes James (1980, p.26). MRJ - aged 14 - was in London for the Eton-Harrow cricket match at Lord's. He writes:

In the afternoon I walked to Charing Cross hospital where I did not find Ber, but went and consoled myself at J.M. Stark's, C.J. Stewart's, and Wilson's bookshops in William Street.

A search of the Internet for this "C.J. Stewart" proved frustrating. The only possible relevant snippet I found was the fact that a C.J. Stewart, bookseller of London, published a work called Cathedra Petri: A Political History of the Great Latin Patriachate by Thomas Greenwood, between 1856 and 1872. This may be the same man, and the ecclesiological subject matter might have interested MRJ, but it would take a major stretch of the imagination to detect any possible connection with the occult here!

Next I contacted R.A. Gilbert, who had been recommended to me, rightly, as the foremost expert on the history of occult bookselling. His reply (which I give here in full, with permission) was an illuminating but surprising one, and introduced into the equation another of the names in MRJ's 1877 letter:

I have never encountered C.J. Stewart as a 'specialist in occult literature' and I am sure that the culprit was John Wilson... John Wilson, of 12, King William Street, Charing Cross, was one of the principal specialists in 'Occult Literature' of the later 19th century. I have a run of his catalogues from 1884 to 1887 and I have examined a number of earlier issues. The other specialist booksellers in London were Thomas Millard and George Bumstead (although they were active somewhat earlier, in the 1850s), and George Redway (from 1882)... It is also worth noting that a facsimile reprint of Barrett's The Magus was issued c.1878-1880 (No precise date has been established but it does seem likely that it was this facsimile that MRJ encountered; it would have been very difficult for a tyro to distinguish it from the original). Wilson has a copy of this reprint as No.65 on his catalogue (Part 74: Occult Literature) of 1885.
To support my view I would add that F.G. Irwin, a noted collector of occult and masonic books who died in 1893, preserved and bound up large numbers of publishers' and booksellers' catalogues from c.1860 to 1890. Many of these are now housed in the Library and Museum of Freemasonry. I have examined all of the bound volumes and not one of them contains a catalogue, or even a cutting from such, of C.J. Stewart.

What seems to have happened, therefore, is that MRJ suffered a temporary lapse of concentration or memory when writing Eton & King's, and mixed up two friendly King William Street booksellers, Mr Wilson and Mr Stewart; one of whom concentrated particularly on the occult, the other possibly on religious history. Why did he not spot the error during proof-reading? As he commented to Gwendolen McBryde when proofing the Collected Ghost Stories (Letters to a Friend, 1956, p.170): "It's very hard to nail the mistakes: if the words are real words, everything looks all right".

The revelation that a "John Wilson" was among the people who nurtured and encouraged the young MRJ's growing fascination with the supernatural raises a new possibility. Could MRJ have been thinking of him, either consciously or subconsciously, when, in "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance", he named Mr Humphreys' uncle "Mr Wilson", a gentleman whose mysterious grandfather was another "J. [James] Wilson"?

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Partial Eclipse of the Provost

by David Longhorn

In "A Vignette" MRJ introduces one of his most interesting images - interesting because it is the opposite of the personal, tactile effects we associate with him:

Now, too, was the moment near [in his dream] when the surroundings began to take on a threatening look; that the sunlight lost power and a quality of light replaced it which, though I did not know it at the time, my memory years after told me was the lifeless pallor of an eclipse. The effect of all this was to intensify the foreboding that had begun to possess me...

The obvious inference is that MRJ saw an eclipse at some point in his life, well before "A Vignette" was penned. But when exactly? A letter to Gwendolen McBryde (Letters to a Friend, 1956, p.42) gives us a date:

The Lodge,
King's College,
18 Apr. '12.

...I hope the eclipse yesterday improved your mind. The sun seemed to get over it very completely, and as someone suggested to me, very likely hardly knew it had happened.

A throwaway remark, certainly, but quite suggestive, as it may be the only other reference to an eclipse in MRJ's published writings. A bit of research on the Internet confirmed that an eclipse of the sun did indeed occur on Wednesday, 17th April, 1912. The line of totality - that is, the path on the earth's surface traced by the moon's shadow - passed across northern France. Cambridge was, therefore, fairly close to this line of greatest darkness.

The eclipse in question was annular - i.e. the relative size of the moon's disc was smaller than the sun's, so that as the latter passed across the former, a ring of fire was briefly visible to those on the line of totality. In other words, there was no moment at which total darkness fell by day, as happens during a 'true' eclipse - the stuff of Rider Haggard and the like. In Cambridge, north of the line of this annular eclipse, the effect was probably like the approach of twilight at midday. The term "lifeless pallor" seems very apposite.

Was this the only eclipse MRJ witnessed during a reasonably long life? Probably not - eclipses are such common events that people who go out of their way to witness them can see dozens over a lifetime. Astronomers see many, of course, but today there is also 'eclipse tourism', an industry that wouldn't exist if the product weren't in reasonably good supply! However, MRJ's writings reveal little interest in astronomy or science in general, so perhaps he simply didn't deign to notice any after 1912. As "A Vignette" shows, though, he didn't forget the effect of cosmic events on the English landscape.

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Caroline de Litchfield

by Donald Tumasonis

In his fragment "Marcilly-le-Hayer" and in "Stories I Have Tried to Write", M.R. James refers (with the title given somewhat erroneously[1]) to the novel Caroline de Litchfield. In view of the confusion seeded by James, the following information may be of interest. Caroline de Litchfield was one of the better-selling novels of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Its author, Isabelle Pauline Polier de Bottens, baronne Isabelle de Montolieu (1751-1832), was Swiss, born in Lausanne. She was first married to Benjamin de Crousaz in 1769, until his death in 1775. In 1786 she remarried with a baron from Nîmes, from whom she received her title. She thereafter, however, continued to live mainly in Switzerland.

Caroline de Litchfield was her first novel, subsequently followed by Cécile de Rodeck and Alice. She was also highly regarded as a translator of La Motte Fouqué's Undine, Goethe's Werther and Wyss's Swiss Family Robinson from German to French, and for her French translations of Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion).

Caroline de Litchfield, apparently first published in 1783 in Lausanne, exists in numerous editions and translations: Paris 1786 (at least two editions), with another edition there in 1789; the almost simultaneously published English 3-volume London 1786 edition; a Dublin printing of the same year; the German edition from Berlin of 1787, and the Stockholm Swedish edition of 1794. It also appeared in Portuguese and Spanish. There were probably even more translations and further versions. It was being republished as late as 1835, giving it a public life of at least a half-century, an indication of its popularity. It inspired a fair amount of art, including, amongst others, engravings by Thomas Stothard, and at least one painting by Henry Singleton.

The novel deals with the romantic adventures of its eponymous heroine, the young daughter of a minister of the king of Prussia. Forced by her socially ambitious father into marriage with the young but less than appetizing king's favourite, Count Walstein ("Instantly hiding her eyes with her hands [Caroline] gave a piercing shriek and disappeared at midnight... The Count of Walstein was, in fact, little more than thirty; but [had] an enormous scar on one cheek, a countenance excessively meagre and of a livid yellow, round shoulders, and instead of hair, a perriwig... His large black eye was fine; but alas! it was single..."), Caroline understandably divorces him, only - less understandably - to be reunited at the end of the novel, after many complications of plot.

Copies of the book were probably common in MRJ's youth (today they are decidedly not, with booksellers' prices seen of up to £650!) and would be just the type of thing that the hero of "Marcilly-le-Hayer" - or James himself for that matter - could cheaply pick up in some British or Continental booksellers' stalls.

We can surmise that it may have stuck in MRJ's mind for years, given our suspicion that his postulated copy was defective (any true book lover can remember flawed books, point by point, years after details of the perfect volumes have vanished into the mists of memory!), and because of the sensational aspects of the story. Just the thing, even if imperfectly remembered through the fog of years, as an element in a new story.[2]

James gives the title as Caroline de Lichtenfeld in the first and as Madame de Lichtenstein in the second.
[2] Those interested in further reading regarding Caroline's author will find the article by Olivier Meslay, from which some of the information here has been obtained, informative: <>.

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("A Warning to the Curious", "Oh, Whistle",
The Five Jars, and Herbert James)

Roger Johnson writes:

Re-reading "A Warning to the Curious" in A Pleasing Terror, I was reminded of a point that has piqued my own curiosity each time I've read that particular tale.

I quote:

Well, now, if you have read the ordinary guides and histories of this county, you will remember perhaps that in 1687 a crown, which was said to be the crown of Redwald, King of the East Angles, was dug up at Rendlesham, and alas! alas! melted down before it was even properly described or drawn. Well, Rendlesham isn't on the coast, but it isn't so very far inland, and it's on a very important line of access. And I believe that is the crown which the people mean when they say that one has been dug up. Then on the south you don't want me to tell you where there was a Saxon royal palace which is now under the sea, eh? Well, there was the second crown, I take it. And up beyond these two, they say, lies the third.

We know where Rendlesham is, especially since the supposed UFO sightings there, and we have some idea of where 'Froston' is, in relation to 'Seaburgh', at any rate. But where is or was the site of the "Saxon royal palace which is now under the sea"? Not at Dunwich, which is too far north, and presumably not at Sutton Hoo, which as far as I know never had a palace.

This is a question which is not answered in Michael Cox's Casting the Runes, nor in A Pleasing Terror. Perhaps it might be addressed in the G&S Newsletter?

[Interesting point. I'm inclined to think that MRJ did mean Dunwich. He obviously expected the reader to know immediately where the submerged royal palace was, and the only candidate with that degree of fame is Dunwich. If I'm right, then MRJ was wool-gathering when he wrote "south" instead of "north" (yes, it is "south" in the manuscript as well as in the printed version). It wouldn't be the only time Monty's wool-gathering resulted in errors (see "The Man in King William Street")! The manuscript of "Warning" provides an extra clue which supports my theory. In the printed story, the third (i.e. Seaburgh) crown is said to be "up beyond these two", but in the MS the wording is "between these two" (actually "in between these two", but with the "in" crossed through). Rendlesham is south (south-west, to be precise) of Seaburgh/Aldeburgh, so if Seaburgh is the middle one of the three, then the royal palace has to be in the north, not the south. In fact, as the crow flies, Rendlesham is almost exactly as far south-west of Aldeburgh as Dunwich is north of it. Who changed "between" to "up beyond"? I suspect it was an editor who didn't realise that, in attempting to correct the error, he/she was actually compounding it. And once more (cf. "The Man in King William Street" again!), MRJ missed it when proof-reading because "if the words are real words, everything looks all right".]


Steve Duffy is puzzled:

Reading through "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" (and its fine companion piece, David Rowlands' "Pua Mana" in G&S 33) over the Christmas period, it occurred to me for the first time to ask: what use might a whistle such as Parkins discovers have been to its original owners/manufacturers, the Knights Templar? Its function so far as the plot is concerned is straightforward, if a little arbitrary: Parkins 'steals' it, he blows it, he is sorry. To borrow a Hitchcockian concept, it's the McGuffin; the thingumajig that sets in train the narrative. But consider the circumstances in which the whistle is discovered. It's buried beneath the altar of the ruined Templar preceptory; either it's of intrinsic value to the Templars, and they wanted to preserve it, or else its function is to be uncovered, blown, and so summon forth a spectral avenger, thus serving as a kind of alarm system... a bit like an unfriendly version of the lunar monolith in 2001 - A Space Odyssey! In this respect, the inscription on the whistle is ambiguous: it might either be an injunction not to steal the whistle because it's valuable to the Templars, or a kind of general admonition not to steal, because thieves get punished - in which case, one might ask why the Templars bothered putting the whistle there in the first place. Could it have been just to entrap people into stealing it? That hardly seems fair; but are there any real alternatives? Besides summoning (allegedly) scary sheet-ghosts, the whistle has but one other property; according to Colonel Wilson, it's the sort of thing that might well be used to summon up unnatural, "extraordinary" winds. And how, we ask in some perplexity, might the summoning-up of winds have come in useful to the Knights Templar? Your thoughts, please, on the foregoing...


I have a question myself:

In MRJ's The Five Jars, the effect of the second ointment is to allow the narrator, 'M', to observe much which was previously hidden to him, and he has the ability to 'see through' to what lies buried under the ground. "...[I]t is surprising," he says, " how many places there lie, unsuspected, bones of men. Some things I saw which were ugly and sad, like that, but more that were amusing and even exciting. There is one spot I could show where four gold cups stand round what was once a book, but the book is no more than earth now" (A Pleasing Terror, p.558). I have the feeling that MRJ had something specific in mind here - but what? Any ideas?


A couple of people have asked my opinion of the recent theory that MRJ's brother, Herbert Ellison James ("Ber"), was the author of the 'B' stories (from the Magdalene College Magazine 1911-14; reprinted by me in the 1980s - see the relevant section in the G&S Archive); that he co-wrote (with MRJ) the 1891 volume Bogie Tales of East Anglia by M.H. James, and may even have collaborated on some of MRJ's own stories.

My attribution of the 'B' stories to A.C. Benson (though it didn't originate with me but with Magdalene College) has never been more than a possible one, but at least there is some circumstantial evidence for it; not so with Herbert James. Whoever 'B' was, his links with Magdalene College (Cambridge) are unquestionable; both because of the place of publication of his tales, and their totally Magdalene-centred subject-matter/settings. Herbert didn't even attend Cambridge University! He went straight from Aldeburgh School to Charing Cross Medical School (London), qualified as a doctor, and entered the Army Medical School at Netley (Hants). He spent most of his early working life overseas in the Royal Army Medical Corps, then returned to British appointments at Aldershot and the War Office, before rejoining the active list for the duration of WW1. He and MRJ were the best of friends and the closest of brothers, but don't seem to have shared many, if any, literary or antiquarian tastes. There is no evidence whatsoever that Herbert was even interested in ghost stories, let alone that he wrote any, whether as 'B' or under any other name (the only record that he ever wrote anything refers to manuals connected with RAMC training!). Similarly, I can see nothing to connect either MRJ or his brother with Bogie Tales, although there is an interesting question here: was this book's writer, "M.H. James, authoress" (as she appears in the British Library catalogue), the same "Miss M.H. James" who, 39 years later, compiled the index for MRJ's Suffolk and Norfolk?

The Herbert James theory is so unlikely that I can't rule out the possibility of its being a hoax, so I won't do a point-by-point debunking unless people badly want me to.

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The Legacy of M.R. James, edited by Lynda Dennison. Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins Publishing (1 High Street, Donington, Lincolnshire, England, PE11 4TA), 2001, £35.00, ISBN:
1 900289 45 8. Reviewed by Rosemary Pardoe.

"The Legacy of M.R. James" was a Symposium held in Cambridge in 1995 to mark the centenary of the publication of M.R. James's first four Cambridge catalogues. The fourteen papers from the Symposium gathered in this book concentrate almost entirely on MRJ's involvement in medieval studies: his catalogues, his work on illuminated manuscripts, on apocrypha and hagiography. For the ghost story enthusiast, or even for those like me whose interest extends to MRJ's scholarly writings on supernatural subjects, there is not much to stir the imagination in essays with titles like "M.R. James and the Changing Methods of Incunable Description" and "M.R. James and the Liturgical Manuscripts of Cambridge" (the latter by his biographer, Richard W. Pfaff). P.R. Quarrie's introductory "M.R. James at Eton" is more accessible, though, and hidden within Janet Backhouse's "Manuscripts on Display: Some Landmarks in the Exhibition and Popular Publication of Illuminated Books" is an amusing footnote: "Casting the Runes featured as 'Manuscript of the Month' in the British Library for Christmas 1982, accompanied by seasonal greetings in the form of 'a strip of thin light paper with some very odd writing on it in red and black - most carefully done - it looked more like Runic letters than anything else'..."

It's also endearing to discover, in the words of editor Lynda Dennison, that the book's "objective assessment of his wide-ranging contribution to manuscript studies" reveals weaknesses "resulting not from lack of knowledge or skill but rather from a disinclination to work on aspects of books which did not especially absorb him". "Were aspects of M.R. James's erudition 'misplaced'?" asks Dennison, and similarly, in his paper on "Some Curiosa Hagiographica in Cambridge Manuscripts Reconsidered", Nicholas Rogers wonders: "Could it be argued that M.R. James's interest in obscure cults was an example of 'misplaced erudition'?" Both conclude that this is not the case.

The final pages of the volume contain material somewhat more relevant to us. There is a little section of "Four Extracts from M.R. James's Early Writings", three of them dating from 1882 when MRJ was not yet out of his teens. These were described by MRJ himself as "some devastating attempts at humour", and it has to be said that funny they are not (nor are they supernatural). However, as the introduction by Nicholas Rogers points out, they are interesting examples of MRJ's ability, later expressed in the ghost stories, "to capture the literary style or the verbal nuances of a past age". But maybe not of a future age! The two parts of "Days in the Lives of Imaginary Etonians" consist of diary entries by Etonians, beginning in 1450 and ending in 2050 (M.R. James, the science fiction writer!); "Anecdotum Etonense" contains a letter in pastiche medieval Latin; while the fourth item, from 1887, is a supposed supplement to Sir John Mandeville's Travels.

Lastly, and the inclusion above all which makes The Legacy of M.R. James quite desirable to us, Nicholas Rogers contributes a chronological bibliography of the published works of MRJ. Rogers has been fairly thorough in gathering his information from the available sources so that, with 440 entries, this bibliography is larger and more inclusive than any other. Unlike the one in Pfaff's biography, it does list the ghost stories, although - strangely - not all of them, and errors are not unknown (why no utilisation of the "Select Bibliography" in Cox's Casting the Runes?). Even so, I know that I, for one, will find it very useful.


(Article) "From Haunted Rose Gardens to Lurking Wendigos: Liminal and Wild Places in M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood" by Linda J. Holland-Toll, in Studies in Weird Fiction 25, Summer 2001. Hippocampus Press (P.O. Box 641, New York, NY 10156, U.S.A.; <>), $6.00. Reviewed by Rosemary Pardoe.

This ten-page article looks at five stories in detail: three set in liminal, border places ("places that men have shaped for their uses and which are no longer 'wild', but which retain elements of the wilderness"), and two in the wilderness itself. The first category is in turn subdivided into those tales, like M.R. James's "The Rose Garden" and "A Neighbour's Landmark", where "human beings have power enough to contaminate the environment but not power enough to exorcize or dispel the evil"; and Algernon Blackwood's "The Transfer", where an area at the edge of a garden is evil for unexplained reasons not connected with the actions of men. The wilderness ("in which mankind is meaningless and nature untamed the dominant force") is represented by Blackwood's "The Willows" and "The Wendigo". It's a pleasure to be able to add a new item to the small list of those that take into account MRJ's abilities as a superior writer of the outdoors; and, while there are no extraordinary insights in this article, the (non-judgemental) comparisons which Ms Holland-Toll makes are valid ones. I'd have liked to see MRJ's "A Vignette" added to "The Transfer" in the second liminal sub-category, however.

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